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The Most Interesting Man in the World

Review: Richard Norton Smith’s ‘On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller’

Nelson A. Rockefeller / AP
• October 25, 2014 5:00 am

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Enoch Powell once remarked, "all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure." Nelson Rockefeller, so unlike the gloomy Powell, would have agreed, and said so in his way. Near the end of his life, he told a former staffer "you’ve got to understand something. When you are a has-been you are a has-been. I am a has-been."

A few weeks later, Rockefeller was found dead in his New York townhouse. He lay naked on the floor of a room strewn with papers (he was working on a book about his mother’s folk art collection) unfinished boxes of Chinese food, and a bottle of Dom Pérignon. The paramedics were greeted by a young woman less than half Rockefeller’s age, dressed in an outfit "variously described as a black evening gown and a caftan, fully zipped."

An ignoble end, to be sure. But how could the four-term governor of one of the most powerful states in the union, and the one-term vice president of the most powerful state in the world, think of himself as a "has-been"? Rockefeller’s sense of failure sprang from one fact: that the top job—president—didn’t grace his résumé. And, after all, "when you think of what I had," he said, "what else was there to aspire to?"

Rockefeller’s relentless and unfulfilled effort to reach the White House makes his life one of the most fascinating in American history. Richard Norton Smith’s new biography, On His Own Terms, is a magisterial guide to that life and politics of which it was a part. Deftly written, witty, and superbly researched, it may be definitive for some time. Smith’s own enthusiasm for his subject—he was a part of a pro-Rockefeller delegation at the 1968 Republican convention—makes for an admiring portrait, but one that is never over-sympathetic or lacking in critical judgment. And the crisp organization and lively narrative prevents this very lengthy book from ever feeling long.

This is in part because Rockefeller’s life is so compelling. Pace the beer commercials, Nelson Rockefeller is the most interesting man in the world. Heir to the Standard Oil fortune, he grew up in opulent New York mansions and Hudson Valley estates. As a young boy, he developed a lifelong fascination with art, and helped his mother select works for the family collection. As a young man, he developed a lifelong fascination with women, and helped a French hostess end her marriage ("I was 18. She was about 35. . . . This was getting too complicated.") He wed Mary Todhunter Clark, an energetic and intelligent Mainline socialite, and they had five children. With his mother, he founded the Museum of Modern Art. With his father, he built the Rockefeller Center. He negotiated with JP Morgan, Jr., fired Diego Rivera, toured Delhi with Mohandas Gandhi, and flew on the Hindenburg with Eddie Rickenbacker. And then he turned thirty.

As Smith notes, this glamour concealed another Rockefeller—one who was impulsive, generous, and hardworking. His true passion was art, and he wanted to be an architect. But Rockefeller felt he "couldn’t justify ‘a personal whim’ in view of his family responsibilities." So he turned to politics, which seemed an appropriate profession for a man of his energy and ambition.

Rockefeller initially avoided elective office in favor of the federal bureaucracy, to which his wealth and social connections gave him easy access. A Republican from birth, he nonetheless worked for the FDR and Truman administrations, as an envoy to Latin America. Rockefeller idolized Roosevelt—he believed that the New Deal saved capitalism (and, by extension, millionaires like him) from unstable boom-bust cycles that impoverished many and led some to political extremism. Rockefeller’s happy, can-do persona as governor of New York, and his belief that "there is no problem that cannot be solved," preferably through government action, owed much to FDR.

By contrast, Rockefeller didn’t like Ike. He found the Eisenhower years, which he spent feuding with his nominal boss, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, to be a snoozefest at best; " ‘a slow retreat’ before the advancing Soviet Union and the death rattle of European colonialism" at worst. Ike returned the favor, saying of Rockefeller "[h]e has one hundred ideas. One of them may be brilliant . . . it’s worthwhile to have him around because that one idea is worth the ninety-nine that aren’t." (220).

Rockefeller actually had many brilliant ideas. By the time he left government in 1956, he had enticed the UN to New York (it might have been in Philadelphia), initiated the United States Information Agency, and created the nucleus of an intelligence network in Latin America. Rockefeller also worked with Paul Nitze and employed Henry Kissinger, and saved the Old Executive Office Building from the wrecking ball.

Smith says that Rockefeller’s executive branch experience honed the policy methods he used as governor: get the best minds in a room, have them write a report, and then carry it out. But, learning experience or not, Rockefeller ultimately disdained his bureaucratic jobs, telling a friend: "you can’t get . . . power in appointive office."

Accordingly, Rockefeller set his sights on one of the most powerful offices in America: governor of New York. A proving ground for presidents, it seemed the perfect vehicle for his ambitions. Rockefeller enthusiastically threw himself into the 1958 campaign. With his son Steven as his driver, he visited 53 of the state’s 62 counties. A natural retail campaigner, Rockefeller ebulliently greeted all comers ("Hiya, fella!"), ate ethnic food at every opportunity, and was equally at home amongst flinty upstate apple growers and Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem, whom he addressed in fluent Spanish.

Just as important to Rockefeller’s pavement padding was the backroom dealing of the would-be lieutenant governor, Malcolm Wilson. A state senator from Yonkers with unimpeachable conservative credentials, Wilson assuaged nervous GOP county chairmen that his running mate really was a Republican, and ensured they wouldn’t bleed support to any potential right-wing spoiler. They didn’t—and Rockefeller converted a large number of Democrats to the cause. He vanquished Averill Harriman, the Democratic incumbent, by over 570,000 votes. Rockefeller was to occupy the governor’s office for the next fourteen years, winning four consecutive elections.

Despite Rockefeller’s skill at campaigning and cross-party appeal, he always viewed "winning an election [as] a means to an end, and the end would always be governing." His governing philosophy had two components. Rockefeller had an abiding faith in the free market, but he sought to temper its excesses through a generous safety net, and offer the less fortunate a chance to rise. The state government—not federal—was the vehicle to make that happen. And unlike the free-spending Democrats, Rockefeller would pay for his programs as he went.

While his commitment to fiscal responsibility didn’t last—we have Rockefeller to thank for high sin taxes, and clever accounting tricks like "moral obligation bonds"—his legislative efforts did. New York’s environmental laws, abortion rights, equal housing protections, and drug penalties are all largely Rockefeller’s doing. So are the many SUNY campuses and the vast state office complex at Albany.

Surprisingly, many of these initiatives passed with Republican support. Rockefeller shrewdly cultivated allies in the statehouse and kept on good terms with Malcolm Wilson. This always-watchful eye on the GOP faithful kept Rockefeller safe within his own party, though to say conservatives liked him would be an overstatement. But he was tolerated. At the very least, right-wingers liked Rockefeller for his Republican enemies, who were also theirs—the liberal senators Charles Goodell and Jacob Javits, and New York Mayor John Lindsay.

The legislative accomplishments, broad appeal, and office he held—all this put Rockefeller’s ultimate ambition, the White House, within striking distance. But despite three campaigns, in 1960, 1964, and 1968, he never made it. This was due, oddly, to incompetent organization. Rockefeller never managed to replicate his blend of retail bonhomie and conservative outreach, which worked so well in New York, on a national scale. He also suffered from bad timing in 1960 and 1968—Nixon had the national GOP sewn up well in advance of the 1960 election, and Rockefeller hastily entered the 1968 contest only after George Romney’s implosion.

His best shot for the presidency was 1964. Smith’s account of the campaign is gripping. In it, he makes clear that Rockefeller didn’t lose because of his liberalism. Shortly before the campaign began, Rockefeller divorced his wife of 31 years, and wed Happy Murphy, a former staffer who had four children of her own. This was disastrous for his presidential campaign, and his poll numbers, which had consistently led Goldwater, collapsed. And yet, despite a shoddy organization, he beat Goldwater in the Oregon primary, and almost bested the Arizona senator in New Hampshire and California. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Goldwater’s highly disciplined campaign (led by New Yorker F. Clifton White, who had been gracelessly snubbed by Rockefeller operatives earlier in his career) won the day. Rockefeller eventually agreed to be Gerald Ford’s vice president, and spent a miserable three years in Washington. He thus made it to the White House, but decidedly not on his own terms.

Nonetheless, Rockefeller still matters to our era, and one gets the sense that Smith wants to spark a Rockefeller revival. In a time of crumbling infrastructure and increasing racial diversity, the modern GOP would do well to look at Rockefeller’s emphasis on public works projects, and willingness to take the Republican message to every community. But enthusiasm for Rockefeller needs to be tempered with the fact that the big spending policies he favored contributed to the economic malaise of the 1970s, which was only broken by the conservative shock of Reaganism.

Instead, the real lesson of On His Own Terms is the power that choice and contingency play in history. Yes, Rockefeller’s quest for the presidency failed in part because of his political beliefs, which were too liberal for many Republican voters. But it also failed because of his impulsive nature and reckless decisions.

Ultimately, perhaps Rockefeller’s most consequential decision—to abandon his dreams of becoming an architect in favor of politics—was his true failing. Smith recounts an interaction Rockefeller had with a staffer in Albany who was also an abstract painter. The governor asked the assistant "how he came by his talent. Told that it welled up from inside, from a self-expression demanding release, Nelson responded dejectedly, "That’s how I felt, but I could never do anything about it."

Published under: Book reviews